What circumstances of heredity and environment had molded an obscure monk, in a town of three thousand souls, into the David of the religious revolution?
His father Hans was a stern, rugged, irascible anticlerical; his mother was a timid, modest woman much given to prayer; both were frugal and industrious. Hans was a peasant at Möhra, then a miner at Mansfeld; but Martin was born at Eisleben on November 10, 1483. Six other children followed. Hans and Grethe believed in the rod as a magic wand for producing righteousness; once, says Martin, his father beat him so assiduously that for a long time they were open enemies; on another occasion, for stealing a nut, his mother thrashed him till the blood flowed; Martin later thought that “the severe and harsh life I led with them was the reason that I afterward took refuge in the cloister and became a monk.”10 The picture of deity which his parents transmitted to him reflected their own mood: a hard father and strict judge, exacting a joyless virtue, demanding constant propitiation, and finally damning most of mankind to everlasting hell. Both parents believed in witches, elves, angels, and demons of many kinds and specialties; and Martin carried most of these superstitions with him to the end. A religion of terror in a home of rigorous discipline shared in forming Luther’s youth and creed.
At school in Mansfeld there were more rods and much catechism; Martin was flogged fifteen times in one day for misdeclining a noun. At thirteen he was advanced to a secondary school kept by a religious brotherhood at Magdeburg. At fourteen he was transferred to the school of St. George at Eisenach, and had three relatively happy years lodging in the comfortable home of Frau Cotta. Luther never forgot her remark that there was nothing on earth more precious to a man than the love of a good woman. It was a boon that he took forty-two years to win. In this healthier atmosphere he developed the natural charm of youth—healthy, cheerful, sociable, frank. He sang well, and played the lute.
In 1501 his prospering father sent him to the university at Erfurt. The curriculum centered around theology and philosophy, which was still Scholastic; but Ockham’s nominalism had triumphed there, and presumably Luther noted Ockham’s doctrine that popes and councils could err. He found Scholasticism in any form so disagreeable that he complimented a friend on “not having to learn the dung that was offered” as philosophy.11 There were some mild humanists at Erfurt; he was very slightly influenced by them; they did not care for him when they found him in earnest about the other world. He learned a little Greek and less Hebrew, but he read the major Latin classics. In 1505 he received the degree of master of arts. His proud father sent him, as a graduation present, an expensive edition of the Corpus iuris, and rejoiced when his son entered upon the study of law. Suddenly, after two months of such study, and to his father’s dismay, the youth of twenty-two decided to become a monk.
The decision expressed the contradiction in his character. Vigorous to the point of sensuality, visibly framed for a life of normal instincts, and yet infused by home and school with the conviction that man is by nature sinful, and that sin is an offense against an omnipotent and punishing God, he had never in thought or conduct reconciled his natural impulses with his acquired beliefs. Passing presumably through the usual erotic experiments and fantasies of adolescence, he could not take these as stages of development, but viewed them as the operations of a Satan dedicated to snaring souls into irrevocable damnation. The conception of God that had been given him contained hardly any element of tenderness; the consoling figure of Mary had little place in that theology of fear, and Jesus was not the loving son who could refuse nothing to His mother; He was the Jesus of the Last Judgment so often pictured in the churches, the Christ who had threatened sinners with everlasting fire. The recurrent thought of hell darkened a mind too intensely religious to forget it in the zest and current of life. One day, as he was returning from his father’s house to Erfurt (July 1505), he encountered a frightful storm. Lightning flashed about him, and struck a near-by tree. It seemed to Luther a warning from God that unless he gave his thoughts to salvation, death would surprise him unshriven and damned. Where could he live a life of saving devotion? Only where four walls would exclude, or ascetic discipline would overcome, the world, the flesh, and the devil: only in a monastery. He made a vow to St. Anne that if he survived that storm he would become a monk.
There were twenty cloisters in Erfurt. He chose one known for faithful observance of monastic rules—that of the Augustinian Eremites. He called his friends together, drank and sang with them for what he told them was the last time, and on the morrow he was received as a novice in a monastery cell. He performed the lowliest duties with a proud humility. He recited prayers in self-hypnotizing repetition, he froze in an unheated cubicle, he fasted and scourged himself, in the hope of exorcizing devils from his body. “I was a pious monk, and so strictly observed the rules of my order that... if ever a monk got into heaven by monkery, so should I also have gotten there .... If it had lasted longer I should have tortured myself to death with watching, praying, reading, and other work.”12 On one occasion, when he had not been seen for several days, friends broke into his cell and found him lying senseless on the ground. They had brought a lute; one played it; he revived, and thanked them. In September 1506, he took the irrevocable vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; and in May 1507, he was ordained a priest.
His fellow friars gave him friendly counsel. One assured him that the Passion of Christ had atoned for the sinful nature of man, and had opened to redeemed man the gates of paradise. Luther’s reading of the German mystics, especially of Tauler, gave him hope of bridging the awful gap between a naturally sinful soul and a righteous, omnipotent God. Then a treatise by John Huss fell into his hands, and doctrinal doubts were added to his spiritual turmoil; he wondered why “a man who could write so Christianly and so powerfully had been burned.... I shut the book and turned away with a wounded heart.”13 Johann von Staupitz, provincial vicar of the Augustinian Eremites, took a fatherly interest in the troubled friar, and bade him replace asceticism with careful reading of the Bible and St. Augustine. The monks expressed their solicitude by giving him a Latin Bible—then a rare possession for an individual.
One day in 1508 or 1509 he was struck by a sentence in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1:17): “The just shall live by faith.” Slowly these words led him to the doctrine that man can be “justified”—i.e., made just and therefore saved from hell—not by good works, which could never suffice to atone for sins against an infinite deity, but only by complete faith in Christ and in his atonement for mankind. In Augustine Luther found another idea that perhaps renewed his terror—predestination—that God, even before the creation, had forever destined some souls to salvation, the rest to hell; and that the elect had been chosen by God’s free will to be saved by the divine sacrifice of Christ. From that consistent absurdity he fled back again to his basic hope of salvation by faith.
In 1508, by the recommendation of Staupitz, he was transferred to an Augustinian monastery at Wittenberg, and to the post of instructor in logic and physics, then professor of theology, in the university. Wittenberg was the northern capital—seldom the residence—of Frederick the Wise. A contemporary pronounced it “a poor, insignificant town, with little, old, ugly wooden houses.” Luther described the inhabitants as “beyond measure drunken, rude, and given to reveling”; they had the reputation of being the amplest drinkers in Saxony, which was rated the most drunken province of Germany. One mile to the east, said Luther, civilization ended and barbarism began. Here, for the most part, he remained to the close of his days.
He must have become by this time an exemplary monk, for in October 1510, he and a fellow friar were sent to Rome on some obscure mission for the Augustinian Eremites. His first reaction on sighting the city was one of pious awe; he prostrated himself, raised his hands, and cried: “Hail to thee, O holy Rome!” He went through all the devotions of a pilgrim, bowed reverently before saintly relics, climbed the Scala Santa on his knees, visited a score of churches, and earned so many indulgences that he almost wished his parents were dead, so that he might deliver them from purgatory. He explored the Roman Forum, but was apparently unmoved by the Renaissance art with which Raphael, Michelangelo, and a hundred others were beginning to adorn the capital. For many years after this trip he made no extant comment on the worldliness of the Roman clergy or the immorality then popular in the holy city. Ten years later, however, and still more in the sometimes imaginative reminiscences of his Table Talk in old age, he described the Rome of 1510 as “an abomination,” the popes as worse than pagan emperors, and the papal court as being “served at supper by twelve naked girls.”14 Very probably he had no entry to the higher ecclesiastical circles, and had no direct knowledge of their unquestionably easy morality.
After his return to Wittenberg (February 1511) he was rapidly advanced in the pedagogical scale, and was made provincial vicar-general of his order. He gave courses in the Bible, preached regularly in the parish church, and carried on the work of his office with industry and devotion. Says a distinguished Catholic scholar:
His official letters breathe a deep solicitude for the wavering, a gentle sympathy for the fallen; they show profound touches of religious feeling and rare practical sense, though not unmarred with counsels that have unorthodox tendencies. The plague which afflicted Wittenberg in 1516 found him courageously at his post, which spite of the concern of his friends, he would not abandon.15
Slowly, during these years (1512–17), his religious ideas moved away from the official doctrines of the Church. He began to speak of “our theology,” in contrast with that which was taught at Erfurt. In 1515 he ascribed the corruption of the world to the clergy, who delivered to the people too many maxims and fables of human invention, and not the Scriptural world of God. In 1516 he discovered an anonymous German manuscript, whose mystic piety so supported his own view of the utter dependence of the soul, for salvation, on divine grace that he edited and published it as Theologia Germanica or Deutsche Theologie. He blamed the preachers of indulgences for taking advantage of the simplicity of the poor. In private correspondence he began to identify the Antichrist of John’s First Epistle with the pope.16 In July 1517, invited by Duke George of Albertine Saxony to preach in Dresden, he argued that the mere acceptance of the merits of Christ assured the believer’s salvation. The Duke complained that such stress on faith rather than virtue “would only make the people presumptuous and mutinous.”17 Three months later the reckless friar challenged the world to debate the ninety-five theses that he had posted on Wittenberg Church.